Sunday, October 05, 2014

Climate change and the limits of debate

We live in a strange age. Both liberals and right-wingers want to constrain the boundaries of debate on climate change. Both sides censor, both sides accuse the other of censorship, yet neither side considers itself capable of censorship.

Many right-wingers insist that man-made climate change is a myth. Fox News and other right-wing media outlets censor anyone who says climate change is not a myth -- in other words, they censor the viewpoint held by the vast majority of the world's scientists. Conservatives think that these scientists are engaged in conspiracy to (in the words of The Heartland Institute) "socialize the world."

That view is, in my opinion, hogwash. Anyone who wants to propagate that form of hogwash should feel free to do so on some other blog. It's a big internet, and you have no shortage of places to express yourself.

Am I being a censor? Yep. My personal censorship gene kicks in whenever I'm asked to deal with arguments that have been made a zillion times before. (That's why this blog never discusses abortion. We'll talk about it when someone comes up with something new to say.)

As my own example proves, liberals censor too. I freely admit it. And I freely admit that this urge to purge unpleasing ideas has genuine dangers. To be specific, I'm increasingly ticked off at those liberals who seek to stifle any attempt to discuss geoengineering.

In my own characteristically oddball fashion, I tried to initiate a debate on geoengineering in a previous Cannonfire post. I suggested using the fabled substance Pykrete -- ice impregnated with a small amount of wood pulp -- to reduce the melting of Arctic ice. Pykrete can "make itself" if wood pulp is introduced into a suitable environment.

I can't deny that the whole concept of using Pykrete to slow glacial melting is kind of weird. Members of the Better-Science-Through-Smirkiness battalions like to remind everyone that Pykrete turned out to be impractical for its intended original purpose of constructing unsinkable aircraft carriers. That objection would make sense if we were still talking about boats. But we're not. We're talking about glaciers.

(Incidentally, WWII-era "boffins" did much more detailed work on the proposed Pykrete supership than I had previously known, as this pdf of a scientific article from 1948 reveals. The same article notes that the concept of mixing wood pulp and ice originated not with the lovably eccentric Geoffrey Pyke but with "Mark and Hohenstein, working at the Brooklyn Polytechnic." I don't know who they were, but they probably weren't lovably eccentric.)

I'm not the only person to proffer the seemingly-wacky idea of layering the leading edge of a glacier with Pykrete. See here, for example.

In 2012, well after my own humble offering appeared, a participant in the TED forums asked if we could "Pykrete a Glacier." The following paragraph deserves your most respectful attention:
America’s fastest growing glacier, Crater glacier in Mount St. Helen’s crater, is well on its way to being the lower 48’s largest glacier, and even though none of the ice pre-dates 1980, at its thickest point its over 600 feet deep. It is advancing at a rate of 50 ft a year and thickening 15 feet per year. Most of the glacier is below the average height for glaciers in Washington State, so why is it growing? Rock slides and ash. They are acting just like sawdust in Pykrete, insulating the ice and keeping it from melting.
Perhaps my "wacky" idea isn't so very wacky. We already have a large-scale working model.

That said, you may be able to raise a perfectly valid scientific objection to the pro-Pykrete position. That's fine. I look forward to hearing your counter-arguments.

What bugs me are the non-scientific objections -- or rather, the anti-scientific objections.

Some liberals -- not all, but some, the ones who are sometimes called "Whole Foods" liberals -- insist that we must never consider any proposal which involves large-scale geoengineering. Why? Not because geoengineering won't work, but because geoengineering isn't virtuous.

To a certain kind of liberal, virtue requires forcing everyone on the planet to adopt a non-modern lifestyle. You cannot be virtuous unless you live off-the-grid, perhaps in a cave, eating only food grown in your personal garden. Virtue demands that you no longer use computers or air conditioning or television or cell phones or non-holistic medicine. Until such time as someone invents an automobile constructed entirely of rocks and wood, powered purely by smirking self-regard, the only permissible form of transportation is the bicycle. A bicycle made of wood.

In short, virtue requires misery. Groovy, cosmic, all-natural misery.

Misery will always remain unpopular with the vast majority of the human race. For this reason, nothing will ever be done about climate change.

A disastrous outcome does not bother "Whole Foods" liberals, since they prefer smugness to life itself. Apocalypse is a small price to pay to maintain their beatific vision of Ultimate Virtuousness.

(One encounters a similar problem when discussing diet. Certain high-minded pursuers of The Virtuous Life insist that the only permissible diet is one which completely divorces the concepts of eating and pleasure. Thus, all talk of the 5:2 intermittent fast diet is Thoughtcrime Most Foul: "Wait. You're talking about a plan in which people can eat whatever they wish during five days of the week? No! Don't even think about it! Whether or not the diet works is irrelevant. One must not derive pleasure from food: That is the LAW.")

Let's take another look at the above-linked TED Forum mini-discussion on giving glaciers a Pykrete makeover. Look at the comments: Most of the responses are infuriatingly irrelevant. People seem desperate to talk about anything other than the topic at hand. Instead of telling us "Pykrete won't work, and here's why..." (or "Pykrete WILL work, and here's why..."), the commenters insist on spewing out crap like this:
I do not share the view that we are the reason for this change or that we should commit resources in an attempt to alter the natural course of our planets systems to serve human population centers instead of over time relocating said populations to meet the changing face of Earth's geology and environment.
I do agree however, to a certain point that we should definitely be slowing our species growth and we should be moving some of our populace centers.
First I have ask what is the perceived "problem" with the melt-off of the glaciers? In other words why do we need to do anything about it?
And so on. It's all blather. It's all off-topic blather.

Why are so many people desperate to talk about anything other than the scientific question of "Will it work"? What psychological malady compels these people to have such a phobic reaction to any idea that involves geoengineering?

I still believe that Pykrete, or some variant thereof, may help to impede the melting of Arctic ice. Lord knows we need to do something: The Arctic "melt-down" not only kills walruses, it reveals dark oceanic water, which absorbs sunlight and accelerates global warming.

Maybe my idea will turn out to be as off-the-wall as anything Pyke ever proposed. That's quite possible.

Still, there are other people -- genuine scientists, with degrees and thick glasses and D&D dice and all the other accoutrements -- who have come up with other plans which involve large-scale geoengineering. Some of those plans sound pretty interesting to me.

Guess what? You aren't allowed to talk about those ideas.

Above, I've embedded a TED talk by David Keith. Keith suggests that we may want to inject large clouds of ash into the atmosphere in order to decrease sunlight. Good idea or bad idea? We may never know, because Keith's proposal is not a permissible topic of discussion.

His suggestion annoys the Virtuecrats, who insist that we may debate only those ideas which increase misery.

Of course, they don't actually use the word "misery." They prefer code-phrases -- usually something about "altering our lifestyles." But what they really want is misery.

I'm a liberal myself -- always will be -- and I've known since the 1970s that the instinct to censor is just as big a problem in Liberal-land as it is among the fundamentalist religionists. True, liberals prefer to censor different kinds of things. Many liberals don't mind looking at pictures of people fucking, and most of us don't get upset at a blogger who spells out the word "fucking" without asterisks. But God help you if you dare to spell the word "nigger" without asterisks, even when you are quoting a racist in order to demonstrate how despicable racism is. Many liberals applauded when a major corporation fired someone simply because he supported California's Proposition 8 back in 2008. Liberals consider it permissible to condemn celibacy in the Catholic Church and impermissible to condemn celibacy in Tibetan Buddhism. (Asian religion has a built-in Grooviness Exemption.) Bill Maher recently discovered that his audience will accept criticism of Christianity more readily than criticism of Islam. One could cite many further examples.

As noted above, I myself practice censorship, albeit reluctantly. I am particularly keen to deep-six any comments from conspiratorial freakazoids who love to spew nonsense about 9/11 and those alleged "bombs in the buildings." Take away the fetters, and said freakazoids will soon transform any website into a place that non-freakazoids can't bear to visit. I learned that lesson the hard way.

Organized mass comment spam is itself a form of censorship. Trolls force one to censor or be censored.

So let us concede that a certain amount of censorship may be inevitable, perhaps even desirable.

But when it comes to the all-important topic of climate change, censorship kills. If we disallow all discussion of radical new ideas, censorship may become a destroyer of worlds.
First we have to differentiate between land based glaciers and sea ice. The problem in the arctic involves sea ice and the separate situation of the melting Greenland ice sheet (glaciers). Then on the other side of the world we have the melting antarctic ice sheets which begin on land and float on ocean at their termini, and the surrounding sea ice.

The formation of sea ice is a bottom up process. Its melting is in great part a bottom up process too. An increase in strength of the pacific trade winds has been driving atmospheric heat into the ocean waters. That's why atmospheric heating has slowed. The heat's going into the ocean, and then ocean currents move this warm water into the arctic. The heat of the Gulf Stream current is doing the same thing in the north Atlantic, carrying heat into the waters around Greenland. So unless you can figure out a way to insulate the underside of ocean ice packs it's hard to imagine reducing the effects of warming waters.

Land based glaciers show the effects of warming climate by retreating which is noticeable at the terminus, but the melting is taking place within the entire lower half of the ice flow, if not further up, reducing the ice thickness and mass. So this Pycrete process would have to extend across a vast amount of ice.

Wet newsprint would be darker than snow/ice and might absorb more sunlight, increasing melt. Though the insulating effects might resist melt. I have seen thick layers of sawdust reduce the melt of snow in the Spring. Thick surface layers of rock debris help insulate glacier ice. But in the greater scheme of things, on a clear day, sunlight reflected by white snow/ice will carry it's heat back out of the atmosphere into space. Sunlight absorbed by newsprint or wood pulp will be heating the earth's surface.

Saw dust is no longer a waste product. It is valuable stuff and is now used to make a lot of products since solid wood gets harder to come by. And more and more of us get our news from the internet and don't produce waste newsprint.

The vastness of ice covered surfaces on Earth shouldn't be underestimated. The quantities of material needed for this project would be incredibly enormous, as would the energy expenditures of distributing the stuff in what are the most remote regions of Earth.

I think that atmospheric modification by injecting reflective dust would be a feasible feat of geoengineering. Isn't this one of the claims of the "chemtrails" crowd?... That it is surreptitiously going on now?

I think your "misery" argument is somewhat of a straw-man. There are simply too many humans on Earth for everyone to enjoy the upper middle class American consumer society lifestyle. The system is based upon false values and is unsustainable. An economic system that will collapse without continuous growth is destined to fail if it is held within a finite system... which Earth is. This doesn't mean that we must live in misery. Restructuring our system to radically reduce the burning of fossil fuels is the first step. Better home insulation employs people and doesn't promote misery. It doesn't mean living in a cave.

Another step is diversification and decentralization of food production and other commodities. Products would have to be made locally which reduces the energy costs of transportation and employs more people in your community. Big mega corporations shipping and selling their products all over the world promotes high energy use and economic inequality. Economic inequality is a recipe for misery, is it not?

We have a throw-away culture which is unsustainable. Producing vast quantities of fashionable cheap crap is not as environmentally friendly as producing quality goods which last and retain their value. Quality doesn't mean misery. We need lasting human values also. Acquiring new shiny objects doesn't necessarily mean a better quality life.
Regarding Pykrete: think of the deforestation. Using recycled cellulose, that's a good idea. Or, a giant lead top hat for the earth.

Regarding introducing particulates into the atmosphere to reduce sunlight, that would reduce evaporation, and is exactly what is currently thought to be to blame for the Ethiopian famine of the early eighties. Less sun, less evaporation, no monsoon, people starve.

Nigger: the aversion to using nigger is so great that a group of internet trolls call themselves the Gay Nigger Association of America, because no-one will ever say it on the TV.

Not all liberals are the same, either. I don't condemn the celibacy of the Catholic church, just the fondling of little children that is reported almost daily, most likely due to the celibacy. I'd condemn Buddhist celibates if they did the same thing. I don't know if I'm a liberal or not and I don't care. But lumping groups like liberals as all one mind is as ignorant as Bill Maher is about Muslims. You and Taylor Marsh should have lunch someday.
My limited intelligent deterministic guess is that the earth knows this well enough, and will take care of the job. If the earth needs ash, it'll produce it. We should probably just stick to the blah blah blah part, as anything we try to do will likely have unintended consequences that are probably even bigger problems then what was solved or whatever.

"But lumping groups like liberals as all one mind ..."

That is precisely what I did NOT do. Read my words again. Read what I wrote, not what you THINK I wrote.

I also said that I myself am a liberal and always will be.

And I'll be happy to have lunch with Taylor Marsh if she pays. Or are you playing Yenta...?
There is no scientific definition of the words "nature" or "natural". What matters is whether something is "real" or "not real". As humans, we are apes who learned to stand upright and dress ourselves. We are as much a part of the Earth's systems as everything else. We just think we are especially clever and so have managed to screw things up.

And if we try geoengineering there is a good chance that we will screw things up more with unexpected consequences. But there may come the time pretty soon when we have no choice. There are negative feedback loops withing Earth's climatic and biological systems which promote stability. Stability allows diverse biological communities to evolve. But Earth isn't by itself necessarily self correcting.

Lovelock came up with the GAIA Hypothesis which promoted the idea of Earth as a living organism with inherent self correcting attributes, almost as a sentient "Mother Nature". It became a religion for some. But Earth doesn't have a genetic code that contains instructions for self correction and how to rebuild itself when sick or injured.

The original GAIA idea was considered bad science and Lovelock had to backpedal to reduce the teleological aspects of his idea. But the notion of Earth as having these inherent "conscious" self correcting abilities has stayed in the public mind.

Earth has many dynamic systems which have developed through negative feedback loops which tend to keep things within a stable range. And human civilization has developed within a stable climatic period. But there are thresholds and if pushed hard enough these "stable" systems can reach tipping points and pass into instability. Humans have pushed the Earth hard enough that our stable biological and climatic systems are crossing into instability. This is uncharted territory and the Earth may never return to its former self.

We've made a mess and we shouldn't necessarily expect "Nature" to clean up the mess. If we want to save disrupted biological systems, taking a hands off approach may not be enough. In some cases we have to actively intervene. The recovery of the California Condor is one such success story.

We may have so disrupted our climate systems that intervention is required. The atmosphere now has record levels of carbon dioxide which won't just go away. The effects will promulgate far into the future. The warming of our oceans is now causing methane ice (clathrates or hydrates) in the Arctic seabed to boil out into the atmosphere, releasing massive amounts of methane which is a powerful greenhouse gas. And this causes more heating which causes more sea ice and methane clathrates to melt which promotes more heating.

We are just blowing past tipping points now. As David Keith said in the video, we may have to turn to geoengineering to buy some time and possibly save Earth's biological systems and hang onto some climate stability. But humans are very clever but not very wise. My biggest fear is that the "powers that be" would turn to geoengineering in an attempt to hang on to our reckless and suicidal lifestyles. After all, the oiligarchs can't get richer unless we burn more petroleum.
It is a quiet day. So once I went to V.M.'s place in Sunol; flipped a coin as to whether I would say hello; negative and some Canuckistanis were visiting. Had a beer in the local biker bar instead.

Ranulph Fiennes had admirable finger issues and went to the hospital; wanted to talk to him about D.C. craziness in his book, the Sett. Flipped a coin; negative. I still became a protagonist of his next book, although he doesn't know it. Ranulph's nephew is a dead-ringer for my dad (who went to Hopkins, so Baltimore nostalgia is fun).

Setting the tone for irrelevant decade-old-stuff about to become a movie; being from Cali, your thoughts for a penny:

Plus, what sillyputty says.
Follow France's lead. They are the most "green" in the world, much more than so-called "green" Germany. They don't rely on coal, gas, nor half-assed measured attempts at wind or solar. They went nuclear and are free. All they need to complete the loop is to require everyone to drive electric cars.
Purists point out that the problem is our unsustainable carbon.based culture, and that's what needs fixing. They're right. I suggest that we start with night time street lights. There is no need to light empty 4 am streets all over the world to daylight standards when cars have perfectly good headlights. If citizens are afraid of the dark they should sleep with guns.

I stumbled onto Pykrete while investigating the MythBusters' silly thermite demonstration. I told my local Green Party email list about the concept, and was much surprised at the hostility.

Used newsprint can conceivably provide the cellulose. If the carbon black in the print absorbs sunlight, perhaps it can be bleached out. Perhaps layers of raw newsprint could be put down and whiter (maybe new, unprinted) rolls could be put on top. Or the top could be covered with snow. I think the concept should be tried before it is dismissed. What's to lose by trying?

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